I rub my eyes open at ten, to the sounds of yak bells.
It takes me two or three minutes to realize where I am. The slatted box is frigid, even half-asleep under blankets and wearing two layers of fleece. The strong sunlight makes short work of the sheer curtains and buries itself in the coarse wood; it takes me forever to reconcile the brightness and the cold.
I’m filthy. The soot and sweat on my hands works its way under the peeling, sunburnt skin. My legs are still numb with fatigue, bloody below the ankle and sore to the knee. Two fresh welts sear my hips, blissfully in two new places. My thermals smell like a week of sweaty polpro worn close to the skin. I am hungry, thirsty, and have an almost extraterrestrial urge to masturbate.
By eleven, I make the solemn trek to the kitchen – 60 meters, tops – and pull down two Advil. Kaka-ji is outside packing up a yak train; I summon the strength to stand idly next to him, sip tea and stare into the valley as he loads a caravan for Everest base camp. He summons the strength to make out his favorite phrase.
I squint into the sun; the 75-year-old man is single-handedly lifting a gas cylinder onto the last yak. The can clanks against its empty cousin on the other side. He smiles.
“Kaka-ji, fucking unbelievable.”
Kaka-ji leaves for EBC; his son and I stay at home. The kid’s just graduated from a hospitality and hotel program in Kathmandu; it takes him an hour to make an omelet, and it takes me an hour to warm up. He’s shy, smiling too readily out from under his Yankees hat, but opens up about being in love with the United States. I gather it’s a pubescent felicity, and urge caution.
The kid is much better with the tea than with the omlet; we pull down cup after cup in the dark kitchen. It’s a small world; his uncle lives back in Shoreline, WA – a few miles from where I got my master’s – and guides in the Cascades. A familiar face joins us: the retarded uncle from last week, who showed me the way forward to Lhokhuchi. He smiles when he sees me. I crack one through chapped lips in return, and watch his face freeze as he listens to the kid tell him how I ended up here.
I take a nap after brunch – another few hours dead to the world – and then spend some time sorting though gear and drying off in the sunshine. It cared for me, and now it’s time to return the favor.
The kid makes a late lunch; the retarded uncle comes in afterwards, for tea and bread. We take turns blowing on the fire – the yak shit the kid’s brough in is too fresh, and burns poorly. Afterwards, towards dusk, the kid takes me outside and shows me a sling the yak herders use to pitch stones at the animals. I suck, and almost take out his windows with an errant pebble. The encroaching fog mutes the echos of our laughter.
I’m in bed early, before dusk; I’m not awake but cannot sleep. Instead, I huddle under the blankets, burn though another set of triple-A headlamp batteries, and read thoughtful mountain porn: Alpinist. It’s a fitting issue: the cover is of two decades in Everest’s history, where the emphasis was on new, original lines in contrast to what was becoming a well-trod path to the top.
By two in the morning, I drift off as the fog fights to get in the windows. It’s over and done. There’s work to do in getting back, but it’s a solemn, lonely victory lap.